SAPPHIRE 2010: the wrap

A changed SAP was on show at SAPPHIRE 2010. Analysts agree the company is rebooting itself The innovations are creeping out and Business ByDesign finally emerged. But what else?
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

SAPPHIRE 2010 is over. Thank goodness. Josh Greenbaum almost got it right saying:

It’s becoming an almost predictable experience, attending an SAP user conference. First comes the spiritual purge of the pre-briefings leading up to the event. Then the unholy pilgrimage to Orlando, then the aesthetic self-flagellation that comes from slogging through a two or three-day schedule of unrelenting meetings, presentations, and deep-fried finger food. Finally, the cathartic release back home to digest the goings-on and bad food and bemoan the next trip to Orlando.

The food was good this time and I can tell you from sitting next to Josh, he was enjoying the opportunity to act as food monitor (lol.) The foot slogging doesn't change and as I write this I am almost welcoming the 9 hour transatlantic flight later today.

I'm glad I made the effort. Following my prequel, I almost didn't go, thinking it would be a waste of time. I called it wrong. SAPPHIRE wasn't a waste and for all the right reasons. All of which proves that after 14-15 years of following this company, it's still possible to get it spectacularly wrong. This analysis doesn't touch upon product announcements nor does it review SAP's GRC offerings or strategy. Tom Raftery is much better placed to discuss those points. Instead, this lengthy romp should provide a sense of what's happening with the company and how it is rising to the challenge of being relevant in the 21st century along with a taster of what I saw on the innovation front.

See also:

How does SAP's Blogger Program work?

After several years in operation, SAP's blogger program has been expanded considerably. The Bloggers' Corner that once was home to six people stuck in a corner somewhere now has dozens among its ranks, integrated into the broader communications area. The buzz is still there, the banter continues, the friendly but sometimes heated discussions go on. We still have the quadrangle table setup which contrasts with the school class style rows of tables in the press/analyst area where all you can see in front is the back of someone's head.

The quality of people the SAP blogger program attracts (there are some seriously well informed folk in the group) and the way SAP organizes execution, it is almost like having a mini-brains trust into which one can tap. That's not a vain, navel gazing statement. Our agendas are different but shared. I can always find someone who can explain a concept or idea with which I may not be wholly familiar and it is no problem to share. We don't do this for the scoop but for the analysis and understanding we can both publish and take back to our respective clients.

This year, SAP made a huge effort to invite SAP Mentors, most of whom I described as Mentor Compliant, complete with rugby sweatshirts bearing a number and Twitter handle. I've said it many times before but these are people who can answer almost any technical question that's thrown at them. They were an impressive sight on the show floor.

Jon Reed, Bill McDermott, Martin Gillet, Dennis Howlett

Jon Reed, Bill McDermott, Martin Gillet, Dennis Howlett

Three Mentors - Martin Gillet, Jon Reed and I had the opportunity to present Bill McDermott, SAP co-CEO with a framed print gifted via my friend Hugh MacLeod. It's an expression of our view that while SAP pursues engineering excellence, it has to do more. It has to be an amazing company if it is to bury the demons of the past and continue to be the premier enterprise apps provider. There is an entire back story to this which is SAP specific but dripping with serendipity. For me it represented the end of a harrowing time, trying to ensure that we managed to make the presentation. Kudos go to SAP's Global Communications team for doing the needful with executives whose schedules must be horrific.

Enough of the self congratulation...

The new warm, fuzzy SAP

This year SAP pulled off a remarkable trick. It was an issue that bugged me for three days until I left the final day Bill McDermott and Jim Snabe Q&A two hander. The first day was pretty much content free in that SAP didn't bombard us with pitches and PowerPoint. Kicking off with a press conference and only a short dog and pony was a relief. We came out smiling. I couldn't understand why so many of us were happy when there was so little to write about. After yesterday's Q&A, I understood why.

When Leo Apotheker was at the helm, it was a gut wrenching change to have a sales person running the company. There was always a sense that we were watching an interregnum. Today, the company has a co-CEO who is an accomplished salesperson but who has a different, more appealing style. When he answers questions, he addresses YOU. He has a rare ability to make you believe that his expressions of passion are genuinely held. You walk away with a warm fuzzy feeling that you never quite got from Leo. Some will say Bill is too slick. Even so you can't but like the man, even though he might be extracting your last nickel.

The contrast in management style is changing SAP from the inside. SAP employees are way too polite to call out Bill's predecessor. It was obvious in speaking with insiders among the Enterprise Geeks and others that Bill (and Jim), accompanied by Vishal Sikka, are bringing the kind of change that could...and I stress could...see this company regain its formidable power in the market. That was the consensus among analysts I captured on video (5 mins 30 secs above) that included our own Paul Greenberg and Oliver Marks together with Sameer Patel and Vinnie Mirchandani.They represent a good cross section of the analyst community, some of which are less familiar to the company but bring a fresh sense of perspective in key areas.

The magic dust Bill sprinkled must have doped Vinnie. I have never seen him write such an effusive and enthusiastic post about SAP. And we go back way longer than the number of hairs left on my head. If Paul Greenberg had been any more bubbly, you'd think he was a shill for the company. He most certainly is NOT. SAPPHIRE virgin Sameer saw lost opportunities around the collaboration space and I sense he is right in talking about SAP using collaboration as an add-on rather than appearing to think about it in terms of rethinking business processes.

Let's not forget Jim Snabe, Bill McDermott's partner at the helm. At public events, Jim serves as the essential bridge between CTO Vishal Sikka's cerebral technician's talk to the geek crowd and Bill's playing to the business crowd. It's a vital role for a company that is starting to understand the sales environment has changed. In the past, IT was SAP's friend. Today and into the forseeable future, it will be the CFO. BIll can do the schmoozing while Jim does the blocking and tackling in between. As Paul says - it works. After 100 days, Bill and Jim have worked out how to play the crowd, taking turns, poviding nuance and perspectives that are vital to understanding this company.

Innovation. Not everywhere but plenty to see.

Business ByDesign got a muted but marginally positive welcome. Much more will be heard about this as SAP rolls out its marketing strategy. The company has played this really smart by not setting revenue expectations. We'll ask the questions but I suspect it will be several years before we get any firm answers to digest. The broader problem for ByDesign is that the marketing strategy is not baked. It has issues I have seen before. I hope SAP is taking on board some of the experience we're passing on. Again, there is much more to come.

Memory Prototype Applications in R&D

Memory Prototype Applications in R&D

On the broader innovation front, I am far more confident in SAP's ability to deliver rather than tinker in this area than I have seen in years. There was a whole section of the main tent devoted to this topic where SAP was showing off applications they are readying to roll, in development for maybe a year out, others that are conceptual and yet others that are pure science. Dr Hasso Plattner's fingerprints, reinforced and executed by a confident if not totally on message Vishal Sikka are all over the company's technical direction. They are taking step one for the future. The massively scalable architectures that will be required to run the Colgate-Palmolive's, BP's, Deutsche Post, Apple and so on will be radically different from those we see today.

By taking the time to figure out how to build, use and then optimize in-memory, the company has the potential to leap frog anything else going on in enterprise land. Demonstrating a live data set from a company I am not allowed to mention (it is humungous), Dr Plattner showed a cool dunning app mashed up with Google maps, running on an iPad. Step 2 will come in re-architecting the company's solutions going forward for this high speed, high availability world. During our meeting, Dr Plattner was unequivocal. There isn't a choice. The fact SAP believe the in-memory stuff will support versions going back 12 years will be a relief for customers who now know there is no forced march upgrade or disruptive re-implementation to take advantage of in-memory. Or at least, that is the hope.

For an indication of the speed at which SAP is developing, check out this video (courtesy of Marilyn Pratt) discussing Project Gateway which talks about 650 experimental apps cranked out in six weeks. Even though these are experimental, that's impressive. The first came 60 hours after Vishal Sikka sent out the challenge. The numbers come in at 1 min 17 secs.


SAP wants to show case Streamwork, the company's take on sort of Google Buzz, a project that shows SAP's capability to get things out the door quickly. In our meeting with Marge Breya, EVP & General Manager Intelligence Platform Group at Business Objects I commented that I struggle to understand this product in the same way I struggle to get Google Buzz. I said it has the feel of a solution looking for a problem. It was only when I saw a demo by Yariv Zur of Streamwork capability running inside SAP applications that I got it. One of the key technical achievements is that Yuriv's team have invented a way of keeping the core data inside the firewall while communicating across any network. In the image below, you can make out the Streamwork pane to the right where conversations related to the order process are part of the flow.

Streamwork use case - in development

Streamwork order process use case - in development

That satisfies ultra security conscious CXOs who might wish to use social applications but want data to remain protected. There are many scenarios where this will play well. Most important is that this should allow Streamwork to proliferate more quickly than might otherwise happen. Subject of course to all the usual caveats about user adoption. Regardless of what position you take on this, that ability alone removes a major potential stumbling block.

I was disappointed in what I saw as Marge's vaguely dismissive view to my point about struggling to understand. Instead of explaining to the ignorant, she chose to say that some people will get it, others won't and there will be other adoption patterns in between. What she didn't know is that I am intimately familiar with this style of application.

Social applications must combine content, context and process for there to be meaning for me. Otherwise, there's always the risk of my attention span collapsing within five minutes. SAP gets that and is peddling as hard as possible to develop use cases that will help it showcase Streamwork capability. However it shows up the more general problem of this type of solution in that vendors selling into complex organizations find themselves hemmed in to consider the permutations of content, context and process as a design point. My gut feeling is that despite those scenario issues (which are perfectly reasonable), the SAP risk is they fall into 'perfect engineering' mode for apps that need to be immediately intuitive. Similarly, it has to be extraordinarily careful to sense test with people like myself along with those who have an appetite to master technology.


No conference is perfect and this was no exception. Apart from specific observations above, I still get the sense here and there that some of the 'tin ears' are operating inside SAP. While it is much more approachable, almost affable as a company, a few of the people I met were clearly in broadcast and not listening mode for reasons I find irrational. No company can ever eradicate that but in some key areas, that sense prevails.

The specter of maintenance hangs over the company. One executive who thought they'd got that nailed made the mistake of smilingly asking my opinion in that regard. That person was treated to a 15 minute diatribe on how SAP's view of choice is no choice at all.

Looking forward

The consensus among colleagues was that SAP did a good job in getting a comprehensive but manageable agenda together for the bloggers. Colleagues at the co-hosted event in Frankfurt report a similar experience. That's extremely good news because it validates the hope that everyone's on the same page.

The video facilities were awesome with one person saying they had more bandwidth than CNN. A pity we didn't always have the same wifi bandwidth. Customers and partners with whom I did manage to get time seem cautiously optimistic to positive.

Fuzzy warm feelings dissipate. Now the company has to get down to business and execute. The next 2-3 quarters are going to be critical to bedding down the changes the co-CEO's have brought to the company. Prior to attending I asked SAP to surprise and delight me. They delivered. Now they need to do the same for their 90,000+ customers. Nothing else will satisfy.

Most of the keynote 'stuff' was intentionally geared towards the Business Suite user. Given SAP now has four broad lines of business, it should devote at least some time to solutions that usually reach beyond the Global 2000.

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